Friday, 23 November 2012

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

"Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker man"






So much has been written over the years about the film often dubbed by modern day critics  as "The Citizen Kane of horror movies'. The production, the low-key cinematic release, the initial critical mauling and the subsequent rise to it's much loved modern day status meant  that I did wonder about adding further of value to the existing body of work on the subject.
However, I quickly realised that even if nothing new or original came from my musings I still needed to talk about, perhaps my favourite movie of all time.

Often Pigeon-holed as a horror movie, The Wicker Man is more than that. Yes it does have moments of horror - the ending IS genuinely horrific….but more of that later. It's also 
an earnest and articulate thriller about paganism in a modern day society, indeed many modern Pagans have embraced the lifestyle suggestions of the movie for providing an idealised manifestation of Pagan culture that showed the Island inhabitants as happy, cheerful, and well-adjusted! The ending of the movie does seem to have escaped them however…...

The Wicker man was written by Anthony Shaffer whose excellent script provided a cunning mixture of comedy, a gradual feeling in the audience of an ever increasing dread, and a genuinely horrific climax.  
The film begins when we are introduced to a policeman from the mainland, Sergeant Neil Howie , who receives an anonymous letter requesting his presence on Summerisle, a remote Scottish island noted for its plentiful fruit produce, to investigate the disappearance of a young local girl named Rowan Morrison. 



Rowan?…..never heard of her.



A soon as Howie reaches the island we see that the residents of Summerisle are friendly but curiously distant, and in some cases not particularly welcoming. Immediately there is the undercurrent of feeling that all is not what it appears. Howie (a stunning performance from Edward Woodward)  is treated as an outsider by the Islanders as he encounters difficulty in getting any information from them. Indeed, they claim never to have heard of the missing girl Rowan, even her own mother insists Rowan does not exist. 

Howie's search eventually brings him into contact with the island's community leader, Laird Summerisle (played by the always, always, ALWAYS wonderful Christopher Lee) describes to Howie the island's recent history and culture. Summerisle's grandfather was a scientist who formulated a number of new strains of fruit that he believed could prosper in the Scottish climate as long as they were accompanied by the 'correct' growing conditions. 

The Laird goes on to explain that these 'correct' growing conditions were, his Grandfather introducing a belief in the local population that the older gods were in fact genuine and worshipping them by farming the new crop strains would deliver them from their meagre livelihood. The crops did indeed go on to bear plentiful harvests of fruit and the island's Christian clergy were forced away, with the population now completely embracing the pagan philosophy. 



The delicious Ingrid Pitt getting all down and Pagan




The repressed policeman, a devout and celibate christian is constantly tempted and appalled in equal measures by the island's seductive atmosphere, With phallic symbols and hypnotic music seemingly everywhere. The numerous pagan ceremonies, often in the form of multiple sexual acts, are are prevelant at every opportunity with the biggest temptation being completely conveyed by the Pub landlord's daughter (Britt Ekland), who overloads Sargent Howie with barely containable sexual desire. 



Oh go on then Willow, if I must…





However, the problem of the missing girl remains, with ever more numerous indications that hint at a darker reality beneath the colourful local customs. When that reality is ultimately discovered, Howie becomes the crucial element in the islanders' most elaborate and ultimately horrific ritual.
Laird Summerisle explains to Howie that he was enticed to the island by the islanders themselves, who have all conspired to persuade him that a missing girl was being held captive. The Laird admits to the Sargent that the previous year's harvest failed disastrously. Their pagan religion requires sacrifice to be made to the sun god. Howie's devout Christian lifestyle and his job as a police officer mean that he is suitably pure in heart and innocent enough to be sacrificed to placate the sun god and provide a successful harvest.



"Oh god! Oh Jesus Christ!!!"




Despite the protests of the now terrified policeman that the crops failed because fruit was not meant to grow on these islands, Howie is stripped naked, dressed in ceremonial robes and led to the summit of a cliff with his hands tied. He is horrified to find a giant, wooden Wicker man statue containing a range of animals, in which he is then locked inside. The statue is set ablaze…….



The stunning end scene of The Wicker Man






The movie soundtrack 

An essential and sometimes overlooked component to the film is the accompanying soundtrack, which here provides a principle part of the story narrative. There are a number of superlative songs and pieces of musical score that accompany a number important scenes, such as the plane's arrival, Willow's dancing, the maypole dance, the girls jumping through fire, the search of the houses, the procession, and the final burning scene. Indeed, according to folklore, the  director announced to a clearly surprised cast halfway through filming that they were actually making a musical!
Some of the movies songs were original compositions, arranged and recorded by Paul Giovanni. On occasion the soundtrack contains folk songs performed by characters in the film. The songs vary between traditional songs, original Giovanni compositions.


The Maypole song




"Willow's Song" has been covered or sampled by various rock music bands. 


Willows song





The musical score to this day remains one of the most unusual in the entire genre: an assemblage  of original, authentic folk songs and instrumental underscore that bring to mind a long forgotten, hauntingly discomfiting sense of displaced time and place. A form of folk-pop informed by ancient forces of nature and pagan belief. Long a holy grail among soundtrack aficionados. 






Friday, 16 November 2012

Season 3  - Game Of Thrones

Winter is coming,er, in March






The ten episode-long new season of Game of Thrones will be based on the first half of "A Storm of Swords," the third book in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. However, whilst apart from a few exceptions, the first two seasons roughly corresponded to the first two books, the size of the third novel makes this virtually impossible to do the same. Consequently, it is anticipated that the plot line  will be divided between the third and a potential (Come on HBO!) fourth season. As per the previous two series when some episodes have contained out of sequence plot lines, this again may happen in season 3.

Plot, character and new cast details are being kept well and truly under wraps at the moment. However, from the few tit bits of information that have been released we know that Clive Russell will be playing the role of Black Fish and the delicious Charlotte Hope will be playing Myranda. 


I'll be watching. will you be too?








Saturday, 10 November 2012

In praise of Universal Monsters

In praise of Universal Monsters




When writing about the output of horror material from Universal studios I could talk about many things. I could talk about a the impact Universal had on a previously belittled film genre, providing a rich source of material and in the process becoming immensely influential in the horror film genre. All of which is virtually irrefutable. 
I could talk in possibly grand terms about how Universal studios brought the themes and technical artistry of German Expressionism to Hollywood cinema and forever determined our concept of Gothic horror movies in the process.

I could also talk about how more than any other movie production company, the collection of work has left an indelible mark in the horror, thriller and Science Fiction cinema. In the process, becoming synonymous with the genre and creating some of the most iconic figures in all the history of film. The horror movie monsters that occupy our public consciousness all have their origins in the iconic 1930s and 1940s films produced by Universal. Yes, I could go on to talk about how there are some very early attempts at simultaneous  movie domain with the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the wolf man regularly transgressing into other movies from the Universal misters stable through sequels or 'guest appearances'.
  

But no, I won't mention those points…… I will though say simply that the impact on first seeing 'Frankenstein' as a young teenager was huge in regard to filling my world with amazing monsters and demons. To this day I can still recall the sense of shock and pleasure I felt on seeing those movies, particularly the first time I was allowed to stay up late and watch 'Frankenstein'. A result of which that night had me charging up the stairs to my room after the end-credits in an almost delicious blind panic that the monster would be waiting under my bed…..and no, I didn't dare look…….and do you know what? They have stood the test of time.


You may note that in the list below of my 5 favourite movies from Universal horror, that there is no entry or mention of a certain Transylvanian male vampire. This may or may not be controversial for some, but while Bela Lugosi's gave one of the iconic performances as Count Dracula, overall the film is actually rather disappointing. With the exception of a couple of performances, the majority of the cast are simply not very good. Moreover, whilst the iconic Gothic appearance of the film is there, the camera work is shoddy and lazy and there really isn't very much tension at any point in the film.

So anyone reading this may feel free to disagree with this list. But be warned, if you do I may just have to send my hunch-backed assistant out to collect you in the middle of the night…..Muraahahahahahaaaaaaa!



Frankenstein (1931)


"We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to – uh, well, we warned you."

There we have a rather courteous notice of intent before the opening credits of perhaps the most visually and stylistically iconic movies of all time about the scientist  who builds an artificial man by using parts from stolen bodies. He succeeds, with the aid of an electrical storm, in bringing the creature to life but, because his assistant has provided the brain of a criminal, the creation proves impossible to control. Eventually the monster escapes, accidentally killing a small girl, and is pursued and apparently slain by angry villagers in the most energised of movie climaxes.

The movie features a stunning performance from a previously little-known English actor who was born by the name of William Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff who gave intricate texture to a character that could have been laughed off the screen. In the end he produced a pathetic and entirely sympathetic creation that has been a template for monster portrayal in cinema ever since.





The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)


Arguably a rare example of a movie sequel superior to the original and in my personal top10 movies of all time, Karloff reprises his role as the lumbering yet dignified monster. In the film, Dr Frankenstein is is now tormented by his previous actions and  an unenthusiastic assistant to Dr Pretorius, his former mentor who is now pursuing his own creations of new life.

The delicious Elsa Lanchester, adds a  touchingly mystified and vulnerable  performance as the Bride who his immediately horrified by her own existence. The last horror film directed by James Whale features an evocative and powerful musical score that only further make this production of the finest and most touching cinematic productions of any era. 








The Wolf Man (1941)


Although it is predated by an earlier Wolf Man film (The 1935 Werewolf Of London), this movie is regarded as the benchmark for inventing the cinematic werewolf legend, The ethereal atmospheres, complex scenes and another atmospheric musical score combine to make this a showpiece of the genre. The Wolf Man is a classic Universal horror movie, equal in every way in being as  influential as Dracula or Frankenstein, complete with a sad and reflective script by Curt Siodmak and memorable performances from Lon Chaney Jnr, Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi .


          


                                                               



    Dracula's Daughter (1936)



As I've previously mentioned, to some people It may be almost blasphemous  to say that the the original is actually a rather poor movie and that, Dracula's Daughter is a total improvement over the original….but in my opinion, its true. Gloria Holden is gloriously sexy as the Countess Marya Zaleska, who steals her her father's body from the authorities in the hope of cleansing her family from the horror of that nasty Vampire behaviour by burning his body. Of course, she is unable to resist the lure of the blood, in particular the blood of female victims which adds an interesting undertone of vampire Lesbianism that set the tone for Hammer productions some years later.

The movie cleverly contains range off inventive inclusions, apart from the lesbian subtext,comedy too is interjected.  Dracula's Daughter is  a gem that is often overlooked in the pantheon of Dracula-lore and should be regarded among the most peerless of the Universal horror films.










Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)



In my humble opinion, the last great release from Universal Monsters . A scientific expedition searching for fossils along the Amazon River discover a prehistoric Gill-Man in the legendary Black Lagoon. The travellers take prisoner the strange creature, but ( this being the Universal monsters universe) it naturally breaks free, returning to kidnap  Kay ( played by the delicious Julie Adams), fiancĂ©e of one of the expedition members, with whom it has become infatuated. The movie has provided another enduring legacy, finding itself referenced in both the movie medium and the general public consciousness. Featuring a wonderfully designed monster, this is an is an enduring tribute to the imaginative brilliance other Universal creators. A truly stunning epitaph for Universal monsters.
















Friday, 2 November 2012

LEVEL 7



“Divided we live, united we die!” 




Most of us have certain books that provide a special resonance in our lives. Perhaps the book provides a meaning or explanation for our own life or some insight into society or wider human existence. Perhaps it represents a turning point in ones intellectual or artistic development. Or possibly, it may be a special book that simply provided escape from reality when we needed it most.
For me, in the case of this science fiction novel, it was probably the last two reasons as to why I fell in love, as a 16 year old boy with this somewhat bleak story of Nuclear Armageddon. 

Yes, once again we return to the subject of a dystopian future following the destruction of the planet……...

Level 7 is a book by the American writer Mordecai Roshwald written in 1959. The story takes the form of  the diary by Officer X-127, who is assigned responsibility to control the  "Push Buttons," a machine intended to set in motion the atomic destruction of the enemy - whoever they may be, in the country’s deepest emergency shelter four thousand feet underground. 

Level 7 has been built to withstand the most devastating nuclear offensive and to be completely self-sufficient to be able to function for up to five hundred years. Officer X-127, like the rest of the military personnel inhabitants of the shelter, has been selected according to a psychological profile that assures their willingness to obey their orders and essentially destroy all life on the planet. 

X-127 duly receives his orders to push the nuclear bomb buttons to begin the third world war , for which the duration of is merely a staggering total of just 2 hours and 58 minutes. As of that moment, the civilian population moves from the surface of the planet to a collection of underground shelter complexes on the the first 5 levels, while the military personnel already inhabit Levels 6 and 7. It later emerges that the orders given to blow the other side to pieces have been completely automated and that World War III has lasted less than three hours as a series of computer responses to an initial innocent misunderstanding between the two enemies. 


As the story progresses we learn that , the inhabitants are becoming affected by the war. Some of the military personal begin to question their blind obedience to their leaders - the most obvious case being the case of X-117 ( a friend of X-127) who commits suicide after he becomes overcome with guilt. Even here, the complete certainly of X-127 isn't shaken. "He certainly wasn't the right kind of man for Level 7" he says to himself. A couple from Level 3 go out to report on conditions, and are dead within 5 days, finding nothing but ash and darkness. In a short space of time, other civilians begin to be affected as the inhabitants of the surviving top shelters systematically begin to meet their deaths, as the surface radiation makes its way down past air filters and into ground water sources.

Level 7 has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the decades since it was written and should be quite rightly considered a masterpiece alongside such pieces of work as Huxley's 'Brave new World'  as an example of anti-Utopian literature. It is easily the most powerful and remorseless attack on the whole nuclear madness that any work of fiction has ever produced. Take for example the passage where X-127 states that the neutral countries in the war have asked for information on the make-up of the weapons so that they can effectively try to take care of their populations as best they can. Both X-127's country and the enemy refuse, on the grounds that it may mean giving some of their own secrets away.


The book real genius of the book is that it is  written in such a way to prevent the reader from identifying which side is which. References to society are structured as to be just as relevant to notions of Western democracy as to the construct of soviet Union society. Nor does the novel hint at any geographical references or individual names. It is left to us, the reader. Leaving the identification of nationality as ambiguous at best only emphasises to the book's themes of dehumanisation and blind obedience to authority and the illogicality of nuclear warfare. 

Yes at times it is grim and harrowing. It is a masterpiece warning against the stupidity of mutual destruction and a book that has as much impact on me now as it did to that 16 year old boy many moons ago.